Thursday, May 5, 2011

Urban Land Scouts--Saving Seeds with John Coykendall

Yesterday for the Urban Land Scouts workshop (level 7), the scouts had a chance to spend time with John Coykendall, the master gardener at Blackberry Farm.

John has been collecting heirloom beans for over four decades, and knows an astonishing amount about the history of the various beans that he's tracked down. Some of the beans that he's acquired were guarded by families for generations; one of the field peas that he showed us dated back to the 1790s! Not only did the beans have fascinating histories, but they were also very beautiful. I'd been wanting to see (and grow!) Christmas Lima beans for a while now, and John had some of those, along with at least a dozen other varieties of beans and peas.
John also brought a few different gourds and explained about the various different uses for them. Before there was Tupperware, gourds were used for storing salt and sugar; they were also used as bowls and dippers. But I digress. What I loved the most was to hear John talk about the seeds.

In these days when produce is hybridized to withstand exceedingly long transport--as so many plants and vegetables are bred to create tougher, more uniform-looking fruit and seed--we are losing genetic diversity.
Not only that, but if we shop at most supermarkets, what we often buy--and get accustomed to--is bland, flavorless produce whose main goal is to arrive at its destination unbruised. Or we become used to just a few different kinds of grain, legume, or fruit, and don't even know about the value and taste of the hundreds of other varieties. I know that when I was canning apple sauce last fall, I was surprised to learn that some apples are better for sauce, while others are best for cider. And it's the same with beans: we know so few varieties, when there are still so many in existence!

This is why the conservation of heirloom seeds is so important--it preserves diversity and a wider genetic base. It keeps the history of our food alive; it keeps food important in ways greater than just sustenance. As the Urban Land Scouts were gathered around to begin the meeting, John Coykendall looked around the circle and said, "This is going to be the future of seed-saving--it's going to be you, and people with such interests."

I walked away from the day with a good bit of knowledge about seeds--for example, I learned that saving seeds of hybrid plants is no good, as the offspring will likely develop undesirable traits of one of the parent plants; this means that the Sungold seeds that I'd saved earlier are no good (and maybe it's for the best that those tomato plants got pummeled by hail). I also walked away with a pocket full of beans. I sat down when I got home, and sorted them--I have a couple of most of the types of beans and peas that John brought. They'll be good for the next 4-5 years, with at least a 50% germination rate, and I'll try to grow a few of them, maybe even this summer. The good thing is, even if I have one or two of the beans, I can grow them, and have more than enough seeds for the following year.

I hope to have the pleasure of John Coykendall's company again soon; he may be coming back to Beardsley next year, and I just might make a trip to Blackberry Farm to follow him around for a while. If you have a chance to spend some time with him, I highly recommend it!

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